If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and motherand wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 15: 26)
In the early Church, to be a saint was in most cases to be a martyr. Persecution of Christians by Roman authorities was, if not constant, at the very least an ever present possibility that colored every aspect of early Christian life. The city of Romeearned its privileged standing among early Christians less as the see of Peter than as the home of shrines to many of the earliest Christian martyrs. The names of these early martyrs still live in the liturgy through the Roman Canon, yet many Catholics know these saints in name only. Two such saints are Perpetua and Felicity. Martyred at Carthagein 203 A.D. under the persecution initiated by Septimius Severus, memory of their story has been obscured by the shear number of canonized saints that have followed them, as well as the changing standards of sainthood deemed most relevant to contemporary spirituality. Parents seeking to inspire a life of good works in their children might understandably steer clear of The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity. The narrative offers no edifying spirituality of everyday life; rather, it presents authentic Christian witness as in many ways a rejection of the best that everyday life has to offer—the duties, joys and filial love of family life. In an age that all too easily conflates Christian faith with natural “family values,” theirs is indeed a timely story.
Every martyr dies for Christ in imitation of Christ. Yet each age calls forth a type of martyrdom distinct to the spiritual needs of that age. The biblical model of St. Stephen’s martyrdom in the Acts of the Apostles would undergo a dramatic transformation as early Christians shifted the focus of their evangelization efforts from Jews to Gentiles. Pagan converts struggled less to convert their fellow gentiles than to persevere in the Christian life in the face of family obligations that inevitably involved some continued participation in the pagan cults. The burden of these obligations fell hardest on young women. Many of the early virgin martyrs were killed for their refusal to enter into arranged marriages with pagan suitors after having committed themselves to life as a bride of Christ. Perpetua and Felicity are unusual in being wives and mothers already at the time they answered the call to martyrdom, but their married state brought with it its own set of duties and obligations. The story of their martyrdom is very much the story of their forsaking their natural family in order to embrace the supernatural family of the Church.
In keeping with the stories of the virgin martyrs, we meet Perpetua first as a daughter rather than mother. A Christian catechumen, she rebuffs the efforts of her father to make her renounce her faith. After receiving baptism, she is sent to prison along with her infant son and several Christian companions. Perpetua’s relation to her family is complex and ambiguous. She presents her father as a devil, yet receives comfort from her mother and brother. She is “tormented” by care for her son and gives him over to her family, yet suffers from his absence. Clearly, Perpetua does not take these natural ties lightly.
Still, the first half of her account builds up to the dramatic public break with her family duties as daughter and mother. On hearing of her impending trial, Perpetua’s father makes one last appeal to her to renounce her faith:
Have pity, daughter, on my grey hairs; have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be called father by you; if with these hands I have brought you unto this flower of youth and I have preferred you before all your brothers; give me not over to the reproach of men. Look upon your mother and mother’s sister; look upon your son, who will not endure to live after you. Give up your resolution; do not destroy us all together; for none of us will speak openly against men again if you suffer aught.
Perpetua’s father may be a devil, but he is a devil with a heart. Temptation is perhaps never more seductive than when it appears in the guise of a lesser good rather than a clear evil. Her father continues to abase himself before her, kissing her hands, groveling at her feet, addressing her “not daughter, but lady.” Holding her son, he pleads with her “Perform the Sacrifice; have mercy on the child.” She refuses, responding simply “I am a Christian.” Condemned to the beasts, she awaits execution, troubled by the fate of her infant son. Denied access to him by her father and fearing he will die for lack of her nursing, Perpetua learns that he has begun to take solid food. She interprets this development as the will of God, “that I might not be tormented by care for the child.” Perpetua thus faces her martyrdom free from all of her family obligations.
Still, Perpetua does not understand her impending martyrdom simply in terms of her personal commitment to Jesus. Interspersed throughout her narrative, she recounts several visions relating to her impending passion. Whereas the proto-martyr Stephen saw a clear vision of Jesus Christ right before his death, Perpetua’s visions focus on her companions. Her greatest fear is that she might die alone. Her visions assure her that she will die with her companions and be reunited with them in the next world.
The narrative of Felicity’s martyrdom reinforces this theme of the abandonment of family for the Church. Felicity is pregnant as she awaits her execution at the games and fears that her condition will exempt her from suffering martyrdom with her companions, leaving her to “shed her holy and innocent blood after the rest, among strangers and malefactors.” Though still in her eighth month, she and her companions pray for an early labor. God answers their prayers: “she was delivered of a daughter, whom a sister reared up to be her own daughter.” The account then abruptly turns to the events leading up to the day of martyrdom in the arena. We hear no more of Felicity’s daughter, beyond Felicity “rejoicing that she had borne a child in safety, that she might fight with the beasts . . . from blood to blood, from the midwife the gladiator, to wash after her travail in a second baptism.” Felicity, like Perpetua, dies with her companions.
The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity celebrates the communion of saints in its narrative and would sustain that communion through the retelling of the story over subsequent centuries. A relatively simple text, it nonetheless inspired the devotion of great Christian minds likeSt. Augustine, who read and preached on the narrative every year at Mass on the feast day of the martyrs. A severe critic of the popular amusements of pagan Roman society, Augustine saw in the sacrifice of martyrs in the arena an alternative Christian spectacle, an inversion of pagan values in which the weak triumph over the strong. Today we live in a new pagan culture that once again worships power and despises weakness. We also live in a Christian culture that too often privileges individual piety over the corporate nature of the Church and forgets that a life of vowed celibacy is a greater good than the best that family life can offer to God. For those seeking to bear witness to these truths, the narrative of Perpetua and Felicity remains an inspiration.